My wife, Hilary, remembers seeing him for the first time on television in the mid ’60s, bringing the Messiah to life with tremendous enthusiasm as he talked about his new edition. She had already heard of him through a former colleague of his at Worcester College of Education, then a colleague of her father’s, who subsequently encouraged her to apply to train in his department. Although excited at the prospect of such an eminent teacher, she arrived for her interview in no small state of trepidation, for his reputation as arrogant and difficult to get on with went before him. On her first meeting, she found him to be quite short in stature and slightly portly, but very sprightly and with a very considerable presence. He was immaculately dressed (as always) in a grey suit and wide trousers with turn-ups, clean-shaven and with a full head of hair. Sitting at the piano, he would tilt his head back to peer at the music through the glasses on the end of his nose. His enthusiasm for music was immediately obvious, but most of all, Hilary was struck by the twinkle in his eye and by how unexpectedly warm, reassuring and encouraging he was. For example, when asked about her Grade 8 piano result, she replied apologetically that she had only got a pass. He immediately responded by saying “When you get to the higher grades, a pass is fine. And what’s a piece of paper, anyway?” In fact, he placed little store by paper qualifications, preferring to judge a person’s musicianship for himself. Indeed, he himself preferred to be addressed as “Mr Shaw” rather than “Dr”, although in the college he was universally known quite simply as “WS”, which was how he habitually signed himself.
Other staff at the college found him elitist and a law unto himself, and music students were generally pitied by those outside his very small department. But he always had time for anyone who he felt was serious about music, whatever their level of achievement. On one occasion for example, an amateur choir in a neighbouring town had the temerity to ask the great man to conduct their Messiah, which he gladly did. A genuine interest and commitment he always respected and encouraged, whether or not a person’s preferred musical styles coincided with his own very focussed interest in early music. Indeed, one of his least favourite composers was Schumann, who he felt lacked depth; nevertheless, he remarked to Hilary that if anything could convert him to Schumann’s music, it would be her “Papillons”. But Gilbert and Sullivan was another matter - it wasn’t serious music. So when the Gilbert and Sullivan Society approached him with a modest request to borrow the department’s music stands, they were met with a flat refusal!
Similarly, when the RE department organised a Christmas service in which they planned to include “And the Glory” from the Messiah, he refused to accompany it, presumably feeling that they were not approaching it with the right attitude. When Hilary was asked to play instead, she keenly felt her divided loyalties, on the one hand to WS, and on the other to the RE department through her Christian Union friends. Completely uncertain as to whether he might regard it as some kind of betrayal, she attended her keyboard harmony lesson with him the afternoon following the service in a state of unease. Throughout the lesson, he made absolutely no allusion to it whatsoever. Then at the end, just as she was getting up from the piano stool to leave, he simply remarked with a twinkle in his eye, “I hear you played with great aplomb this morning, Hilary”.
As a teacher, WS was outstanding, since the musical skills he possessed had not come to him easily. He had great sympathy, for example, with those who had difficulty with aural; not having perfect pitch, he had had to work hard at it himself. Indeed, he was dismissive of people whose skills came naturally, and had no time for the arrogant. Realising Hilary’s need to gain confidence for her degree flute recital, he organised a series of lunchtime concerts specially. Nevertheless, when it came to the degree recital itself, she made a hash of the first piece, though he told her later that her “Syrinx” (by Debussy) had won the day and that the examiners had disregarded the Loeillet. In fact, understanding her concern at the way the recital had gone, on his return from a meeting of the examination board he made a highly unofficial visit to her hall of residence and knocked on her door. She was out at the time, but he left a message with her somewhat baffled room-mate, that “a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, and she’s got nothing to worry about”.
Although childless, WS always took a very fatherly interest in, and care for those for whom he felt responsible, a trait which ran very deep in him. One morning he arrived in lectures and recounted to his students how he’d been eating his breakfast when the cat had brought in a mouse. Profiting from a momentary lapse of attention on the part of the cat, the mouse had seized its chance and darted for the nearest cover - WS’s ample trouser leg! Clearly feeling that the hapless creature had consciously thrown itself upon his mercy, he related how, with great care and not without difficulty, he had extracted it and given it its freedom, well away from the evil eye and malevolent paw of the cat.
WS was passionate about early music, and in particular spent much time researching and editing Tudor church music quite apart from his work on the Messiah. However, it was the Messiah that always held a very special place for him. What he so loved and admired about it was the complete effortlessness of its beauty. Not that its spiritual dimension was lost on him either. His faith was clearly deep, though very private and personal to him. Hilary remembers how his demeanour changed immediately to one of reverence and deference as he took the college choir into the cathedral on one occasion to sing some Tudor anthems he had edited, as he recognised and acknowledged an infinitely greater Presence than his own.
In 1967, Watkins Shaw was awarded an honorary Dlitt by Oxford University, and
in 1990 he was awarded the O.B.E for services to music. Aged 85, he died on 8th
October 1996. In Handel’s shadow, his name will live on for many years.
(An obituary [well down the page], which originally appeared on the Wadham College website, can be found at the Internet Archive. Another obituary was published in The Times, Monday 21st October, 1996.)
©Philip Le Riche, June 2005Return to the Random Jottings